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For most of the last year I’ve been too preoccupied with other matters to spend much time working on the software of our small webzine, which therefore remained largedly unchanged. But I’ve now spent the last week or two cleaning up the commenting archives and also adding some powerful new features, partly inspired by suggestions from various commenters.
From the beginning I’ve always regarded the comments as an absolutely crucial element of the informational value our website offers, and with the total volume of such discussion now having passed a million comments containing close to a hundred million words, the case seems stronger than ever. For featured articles, the total size of the comment-thread almost invariably surpasses that of the piece itself, quite often by a factor of ten or more. The dispersion in the quality of comments is absolutely enormous, with participants ranging from the ignorant, fanatical, or crazy to the exceptionally erudite and persuasive; and I’m sure every single commenter strongly agrees with this characterization, though differing on exactly which is which.
Furthermore, as more and more mainstream web outlets heavily moderate or censor their comments, or add the stifling requirement of a Facebook login, our “free speech” zone of lightly moderated and pseudonymous comments on contentious issues lacking any registration requirement may represent an increasingly attractive port in the ideological storm. However the sheer volume and diversity of the opinions expressed on our website represents a challenge as well as an opportunity, with quite a number of readers expressing their increasing frustration in coping with comment-threads that can frequently grow to two hundred or more entries, many of which seem to be worthless clutter, devoid of any value.
Suggestions were made to implement a comment-voting system, but I’ve always rejected such popularity-contests, which would probably spark a further increase in ideological gang-warfare, and I was glad to see that many longtime commenters shared my doubts. Instead, I believe that some of my current software enhancements achieve many of the same benefits while avoiding the huge pitfalls.
- Requiring Commenters to Use a Single, Unique Handle (or Using Anonymous/Anon for Greater Anonymity)
These new features rely heavily upon the ability to organize comments by a commenter’s unique handle, and therefore required quite a lot of work in that regard. For the last couple of years, I’ve endlessly emphasized that although our webzine has very loose commenting restrictions, one of the few absolutes is the prohibition of “shape-shifting” or “sock-puppetry,” whereby a particular commenter using multiple handles to hide his identity—commenters who temporarily or permanently seek greater anonymity have always welcome to use Anonymous/Anon. Although the vast majority of regular commenters properly complied with these guidelines, I’ve now turned my fulminations into practice by spending several days cleaning up the comment archives and appropriately dealing with the relatively small number of misbehaving individuals by merging all their old comments, generally under their most recent or most common handle.
Although the number of comments effected was relatively small—perhaps 3-4% of the total—the violations of some commenters was remarkably egregious, with a certain “Priss Factor” having published 8400 comments under a total of 397 (!!!) different handles that I managed to locate and merge, plus presumably many others that I failed to detect. Other commenters, including several notorious “trolls” had each employed at least a couple of dozen or more aliases. I still have some additional filtering and merging to do, but I think the bulk of the process has now been completed.
As mentioned, commenters may always freely use “Anonymous” or “Anon” as handles, but such comments are likely to be taken less seriously by readers. Use of a distinct handle is a privilege not a right, and single-use handles will soon be marked as such, while being eventually converted to “Anonymous” in the archives to discourage such drive-by commenting. I’ve also implemented various checks to make it much more difficult for commenters to casually change their handles let alone attempt to false-flag another commenter by stealing his identity. Obviously, since our website does not require registration, any substantially motivated individual could easily circumvent these defenses, but such simple checks should be sufficient to discourage casual misbehavior.
My website philosophy holds that commenters should reserve their wit and creativity for the content of their comments rather than their handle, and I regard the heavy use of punctuation in handles as a serious distraction, which has now been largely eliminated. A few punctuation marks—periods, commas, dashes, underscores, slashes, and parentheses—were either appropriate or too already too widespread for me to conveniently remove, but most other punctuation marks in handles has now been replaced, with future use prohibited.
- Ignoring or Following Comments by Commenter Handle
The motivation for this strict One Handle rule should become apparent based on the powerful new comment filtering features I’ve now added.
First, the longtime “Commenters To Ignore” feature has now been joined by a “Commenters To Follow” option, which has serves an exactly opposite purpose. Adding commenters to your CTF list allows the contributions of those individuals to be easily located within the mass of ordinary comments in a variety of different ways.
First, in any comment-thread, CTF comments are indicated by a golden border around the commenter’s name, easily highlighting them when scrolling through a long thread. Also, pressing the “Endorsed Only” button near the top of a comment-thread temporarily displays only those comments by CTF Commenters or those have Agrees, Disagrees, or LOLs, greatly reducing the chaff of a thread that may contain hundreds of items.
Perhaps even more importantly, all comments by CTF commenters may be separately examined by going to the “Followed Commenters” section of the main Comments Archive page, accessible by clicking the “Comments” link in the top menu. Within the Comments Archive page, the CTF comments may be filtered or stratified in a wide variety of ways, including by date, article topic, or article author. Essentially all other ways of filtering comments may be combined with the CTF filter. Among other things, this easily allows readers to catch up on the most recent comments by their favorite CTF commenters.
Taken together, these features further establish the dualization of the website, with commenters being increasingly placed on an near-equal footing with writers, columnists, and bloggers. Given that the total output of several commenters have now passed the one million word mark, this is not an unreasonable goal. Although “Priss Factor” may have preferred to keep his(?) comments under their 397 separate handles, merging them together puts the total verbiage at a remarkable 1.5 million words, easily placing “Priss Factor” in first place among all commenters and ahead of nearly all our main writers and columnists.
- Easily Modifying Your CTI and CTF Lists
Given the growing importance of both the CTI and CTF features, I’ve also made it much easier to modify those selections. Although each list may still be accessed and edited by the popup buttons at the top of all comment threads, there’s now a much easier method, available everywhere within a thread. If you press the Agree/Disagree button for any comment, the popup that opens includes buttons labeled “Ignore Commenter” and “Follow Commenter” that immediately add that particular commenter to the particular lists in question. And if a commenter is already on the CTI list, that same popup would instead display an “Un-Ignore Commenter” button; similarly, commenters on the CTF list offer an “Un-Follow Commenter” button. Such convenient button access should make it extremely easy to build up considerable CTI and CTF lists on the fly, assigning particular commenters while reading through a long and contentious thread.
All of these CTI and CTF lists are user/device-specific, and saved in a permanent cookie in your browser. Unfortunately, the combined size of all of a website cookies cannot exceed 4K, and since the new Add/Remove buttons would allow the easy production of enormously long CTI and CTF lists, I’ve now restricted the combined total to no more than 99 commenter handles.
- Exploring the Archives of a Particular Commenter
Just as before, clicking the name of a given commenter transfers you to the total archive of comments by that individual (although the URL format has slightly changed). However, just like the CTF comments, an individual’s comments may now be filtered or stratified by date, article topic, or article author, allowing a commenter’s views and opinions to be much more fully explored. As a couple of examples, here are the 2015 comments of “Priss Factor” on articles by Peter Lee and the comments of “Dave Pinsen” on pieces tagged with the “Donald Trump” Topic:
These sorts of links are easily accessible from the Author and Topic Boxes of the particular commenter’s archive page.
Anyway, I think most users will find these new commenting features a welcome means of navigating the long and convoluted discussions occurring in our small webzine. And please alert me to the problems you will surely encounter in such a complex package of software changes, or any additional suggestions you might have.
- Avoiding Use of Ethnic/Racial Slurs and Profanity
Finally, I must repeat my recent warnings that commenters are strongly advised to avoid the use of ethnic/racial slurs and profanity, which is certainly not required to convey even the most controversial and inflammatory perspectives and can be offputting to readers. I’m pleased to note that the former seem to have been greatly reduced, but recently there has been a sharp rise in profanity, especially associated with angry exchanges on 9/11 issues.
While profanity is not strictly prohibited, as I warned, comments containing it stand a serious risk of being trashed rather than published. Do you really want to produce a highly substantive and detailed 500 word critique and then see it lost, disappearing into the ether forever, simply because you chose to include one or more totally unnecessary words? The risk and choice is entirely yours, but you have been warned, and perhaps a widespread wave of such trashings is the easiest way to deter of demonstrating the folly of violating such simple rules.